Local search is a commonly used and known term that relates to the way in which search engines tailor results to people living in a particular city area within a country. However, for global marketers “local” generally refers to marketing as it relates to a particular country. Though not common knowledge, search engine results are also tailored based on the user’s country. A search conducted on Google in one country may yield different results from the same search conducted in another.
For the marketer striving to reach a global audience through search, this presents both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is that an international search engine optimization initiative must be implemented on a country-by-country basis – a “one-size-fits-all” approach will be less than effective. The opportunity that this present is the ability to target customers differently in each country through SEO; thus enabling more targeted marketing.
To understand how international search engine results are served, it is important to understand the factors search engines such as Google use to determine which results are most relevant on a country-by country basis.
1) Version of Google being used
Google has one global version (google.com) and many country-specific versions. The default version is the one in which the user is located. For example, if a user is located in France the default version of Google is google.fr. Google assumes that anyone using google.fr is French (or fluent in French) and thus the results it serves on this engine are those it believes the most relevant for people in France. The same applies for any country-specific version of Google.
The language in which the search query is entered is obviously a major factor in determining user location and result relevance. If a user enters a query in Italian, then most likely that user is in Italy. If the user queries the search engine in a language that is spoken in many countries such as Spanish, Arabic or English, then this is not as strong an indication of location. But it does help Google narrow down the results to one language.
3) Location of the user
Google determines user location via their IP address. This used to be a strong determining factor in the results being served but this is no longer the case especially if the user is using a country-specific version of Google. For example, someone using google.co.uk in Spain (there are many UK expats living in Spain) will receive the same results as they would when entering the identical query when in the UK or any other country. This changes when the user is using the global version of Google – google.com. Results served on google.com do differ based upon the IP of the user.
4) Location of a website
Websites that are identified as being particular to a specific country will generally gain preference in the search results in that country. Website location is determined via a combination of the top level domain (TLD), language, addresses on the site, inbound links, and hosting location. Hosting location has been reduced in significance of late due to the fact that large hosting companies host websites in multiple countries. But the other factors are all used by search engines to determine a site’s relevance to a user’s search query. Google provides an excellent tool in its Webmaster Tools that enables website owners to specify the country in which it wants to target. Using this feature will likely override the other factors though Google will still check the other factors to make sure the content is really relevant.
In summary, targeting global users through search engine optimization is complex as many interrelated factors need to be taken into consideration. But the rewards are well worth the effort because an effective international SEO initiative will stimulate global business growth and expansion.
For information on targeting users via paid search on Google’s Adwords platform, see the page on international ad targeting on Adwords Help.
If you need help planning an international SEO strategy, we would love to hear from you.